According to those who follow dining trends in this country, Sbarro is dying.
Sbarro’s business model, its entire image, has always been “that cheap Italian place at the mall, with runny spaghetti and doughy pizza, in the food court, next to the Orange Julius.” Sbarro got into malls in 1970, at Kings Plaza Shopping Center in Brooklyn, went public in 1985, just three years after Fast Times at Ridgemont High celebrated the mall as the theater of teenage social drama, and went bankrupt in 2014, closing 300 locations — almost all of them in malls.
“What was significant about a restaurant like Sbarro, for many mall-goers, was its limited location: There might be a McDonald’s or Burger King at the food court, too, but Sbarro was a special mall-only treat, intrinsically linking the brand with that specific shopping experience,” the website Eater wrote, in an article on how Sbarro’s fortunes rose and fell with the fortunes of shopping malls. “But the days of ‘going to the mall’ are over.”
Yet there is a Sbarro still alive in the heart of the Loop. It is in the basement food court of the James R. Thompson Center, sharing space with a Burger King, a KFC, a Taco Bell, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Panda Express, and a Subway.
The state of Illinois recently sold the Thompson Center for $70 million to The Prime Group, a commercial and residential real estate developer planning a full renovation. The sale was celebrated by preservationists, who see the Helmut Jahn-designed Thompson Center as a classic example of postmodern architecture. Preservation Chicago called it “one of our city’s most iconic 1980s buildings.”
It is my hope that the Prime Group’s $280 million makeover also preserves the food court — one of our city’s most iconic 1980s dining experiences.
I am a big fan of food courts. My idea of a quality restaurant is one that gives me the most food for the least amount of money. I really miss Ronny’s Steak House. The Atrium Food Court, as it is now known (a name that succeeded the much more colorful Great State Fare), spares me from having to schlep to the Golf Mill Shopping Center or the Chicago Ridge Mall for an $8.25 meal I can’t finish.
That’s how much I paid for a plate of baked ziti at Sbarro on Tuesday. Franchised fast food is all about the consistency of the dining experience. Sbarro’s ziti is very consistent. The pasta, the cheese and the bread stick all tasted exactly the same, as though a single ball of dough had been squeezed into different shapes.
The Secretary of State’s Drivers Services Facility, which shares the basement with the food court, is closed until next Tuesday because of the omicron variant, so many of the restaurants were closed, too. Grates were pulled over the darkened counters of M Burger, Baba’s Kitchen, Burger King and Arby’s, giving the food court that 21st Century deadmall feel. I was one of only a dozen or so diners on that cold day, which seemed like a waste of the room, since the food court is probably the most welcoming indoor public space in the Loop. Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa, an advocate of preserving the Thompson Center, recalled doing his homework in the food court between trains on the way to school.
That’s a good reason to preserve the food court. Another is that the plebeian food court is being replaced by an upscale institution known as the “food hall.” As a restaurant consultant told Eater, Sbarro’s “biggest shortcoming is that it sells food that has been sitting out for a while and more people want food made to order.”
Just around the corner from the Thompson Center is the Urbanspace food hall, at 15 W. Washington St. When I asked a greeter in an Urbanspace polo shirt the difference between a food court and food hall, he said, “Uh, I don’t know. This is more like, you know, a hall.” So I investigated myself. Urbanspace is populated with local restaurants, not chains one might find in a Morton Grove strip mall: Happy Lobster, Sushi Dokku, Isla Pilipina. It’s also more expensive. A taco dinner at Bianca’s BBQ is $14.50. A 3 Soft Tacos Combo at Taco Bell is $6.29. Edzo’s Burgers charges $10 for its namesake meal. Pinky’s Gyros and Beef: $4.99.
In a Jacobin article titled “Chicago’s Thompson Center Is A Palace For The People,” Marianela D’Aprile wrote eloquently of the building’s architectural distinction: “It’s peak postmodern architecture, full of tongue-in-cheek references to architectural eras gone by: the colonnade, the giant oculus at the top of the atrium, the Campidoglio-inspired tile pattern on the floors, even its hyper-reflective glass allows architectural history — the images of the surrounding buildings — to be read on its surface.”
Then she added that it’s “one of the only places in the Loop where you can get a truly affordable lunch.”
I can appreciate that more. When I go into the Thompson Center, I never look up at the atrium. I look down, toward the food court.